Cassandra Herevia demonstrates how to wear the PPE manufactured by Portage Plastics Corporation Wednesday outside the company’s Brownsville factory. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

BROWNSVILLE — Amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, a Brownsville manufacturer has stepped into the breach, donating large quantities of clear plastic face shields to local hospitals and, in the process, stumbling across a new business opportunity at a time normal regular business has plummeted due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Vicente Sanchez, director of Portage Plastics plant in Brownsville, said the company saw the need for PPE rising as its usual business dwindled. With corporate headquarters in Portage, Wis., the company manufactures thermoformed plastic products for the food and restaurant, medical, and aftermarket automotive industries, with the Brownsville plant focused mainly on automotive. Sanchez said the plant, which has about 40 employees, had a large quantity of leftover polyethylene sheet laying around, the engineer turned out some prototypes and workers started cutting face shields.

So far, four boxes of 500 shields each have been distributed to the Valley Baptist Health System and Valley Baptist Physician Network, to be shared throughout the system and network, and with Valley Regional Medical Center as well, he said.

“Right now we have 15,000 to give,” Sanchez said.

The company’s Wisconsin plant has also been making shields, donating them to hospitals in Chicago and New York and nursing homes in Minnesota, though essentially through personal contacts rather than normal supply chains, which Portage Plastics President Dan Joyce described as too sluggish and bureaucratic to be of much use during the current crisis.

“Sunday night into Monday afternoon we ran about 10,000 more, so out of that we sent out 2,000 to New York Community Hospital through the sales rep out there,” he said. “It was just a connection through a sales guy out there who was a friend of a friend. That’s how it’s happening. … It’s kind of like what you see on TV, where people are just desperately looking around for things, but not having a supply chain.”

Joyce said that so far he hasn’t been able to bring himself to charge doctors for the shields they so desperately need. The company has even been covering the cost of shipping.

“At some point I can’t keep doing that,” he said. “I still have a company and responsibilities here, but we’re doing both.”

Sanchez said that what began as charity morphed into a business opportunity when the plastics company was contacted by another firm, which needed help meeting shield orders for the even bigger company selling them. Suddenly, there was a contract — 10 times more lucrative than the plant’s usual lines, he said.

“So suddenly it went boom,” Sanchez said. “Now we’re going to make them as a product that somebody’s paying for. The problem is we don’t know how long it will last.”

Claudia Garza demonstrates how a mask can be attached to one of Portage Plastics Corporation’s PPEs Wednesday outside the company’s Brownsville factory. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The shields for donation are only slightly cruder than the ones the plant will produce on contract, and only someone who really knows plastics could tell the difference, he said.

Joyce said the company will mass produce two types: one designed by the Brownsville plant’s engineer that attaches to an N95 mask, or surgical mask, and another that covers the entire face and features a built-in plastic strip that serves as an adjustable, locking headband. New cutting dies have been ordered for production, he said.

“We actually have the capability of making probably 1.5 to 2 million shields a week down in Brownsville, and that’s only half our lines,” Joyce said. “I’m going to have a little bit of a problem if the other stuff starts picking up. But I think we’ll be OK. We’ve got some inventory down there. It’s one of those things, we’re just trying to keep the business alive too. A month without sales is not such a good thing. We’re not the only ones dealing with that, and there’s people dealing with a lot harder that we are.”

Sanchez contrasted his experience working in maquiladoras, where the top priority was always the bottom line, with his two years at Portage Plastics, recalling the day not long ago when he first discussed with Joyce the potential for profiting off PPE manufacture in a big way.

“He answered me that, you know, this is not a time to sell,” Sanchez said. “This is a time to give away, so let’s start to donate these things. … I’m working in this company where you have a human touch. That’s why I feel comfortable working here.”

Joyce said that “we’re not a huge, huge company, but we’re all pretty close and family like.”

Despite the currently hot market for PPE and the company’s move to take advantage of it, Joyce said he doubts Portage Plastics will be in the face-shield business six months from now, and that he plans to keep prices reasonable.

“It’s certainly not a gouging situation,” Joyce said. “It’s more of just-keeping-the-lights-on kind of situation.”